Bible teachers, local church pastors, and faithful church members all share a common desire to better understand the scriptures. We want depth in our Bible studies and prefer series of sermons that go through the Bible verse by verse. We believe that the Word of God is full of truth and we don’t want to miss any of it. We also know that understanding the scriptures can be tricky because they come to us not as a list of bulleted statements downloaded from heaven, but as a complex story of God‘s interaction with his chosen people.
Naturally, we who cherish the Word of God and seek to live by its light, are eager to delve into the pages of this difficult history in search of wisdom and truth. That’s fine, but as we slow down and get deeper into the text, our best intentions don’t protect us from some all-too-common misinterpretations. In fact, by trying to ‘dig in’ we can veer off course and miss what the text is trying to say.
Whether you read the Bible in your native language or in the original Greek and Hebrew, here are three key insights that can keep you on the right exegetical path.
1. Words are flexible and contextual.
One of the most common word study errors is called illegitimate totality transfer. We make this mistake when we apply all possible definitions from a given word to a particular use of this one. Why is this an error? Because words are flexible and often have very different shades in different places. Let’s say you come across the word “faith” in Romans 4 and think to yourself, I wonder what that means in Greek? You look up the broad definition of the word Greek in a dictionary and apply that entire definition to its use in Romans 4. But the Greek word pistis can mean a lot of things, and we can’t assume that means all these things in Romans 4.
The scriptures are not a list of bulleted statements downloaded from heaven, but a complex story of God’s interaction with his chosen people.
Consider the flexibility of the English word “trouble.” When we say, “He’s having trouble because he skipped school” and “I had trouble installing the dishwasher,” we use “problem” in very different ways. Both usages would satisfy Webster’s generic dictionary definition, but imagine if I were to apply the student/teacher nuances of “problem” in the first sentence to my dishwasher example. We would never do that because we intuitively know that words are flexible and contextual.
Resist the urge to treat words, even key words like faith or justification, as if they were variables in a mathematical equation. Think of words in terms of their function and use, and don’t take a word out of context to determine its meaning. Conversely, think about how this word is used in its context.
Make no mistake: word studies that adequately account for a keyword’s flexibility in Hebrew or Greek can be extremely helpful. The Bible Project’s word study videos provide good examples of Bible word studies that do not fall into common exegetical errors. (For more on word study errors, see this article or DA Carson’s Exegetical errors.)
2. Details can distract from the flow of a text.
It’s a common assumption in our post-Enlightenment, science-driven culture: to fully understand something, we need to break it down into its smaller pieces and understand the individual parts. This is not a bad instinct, and there is certainly a place for it in Bible study. I do this when I map New Testament sentences with my Greek students. You can think of this type of study as “zooming in” on the words to take a closer look at the details.
However, this “zoom in” can distract us from the main point of the text. With a few exceptions (Proverbs and, perhaps, some of James), the Bible books are not designed to be cut into small bits of useful information. They are meant to be heard in their entirety. Before zooming in to dissect individual words and phrases, we need to Zoom out and ask how what we read fits into the argument of his book. Let’s go back to our example from Romans 4. Before looking up “faith” in a theological dictionary, think about how what Paul is saying fits into the argument of the book of Romans. Consider Paul’s example of Abraham in light of the questions it raises about Jews and Gentiles in chapters 2 and 3, or how Paul will show that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham in chapter 5 .
Does the following scenario sound familiar? You sit down to read some scripture, but only a few verses come up against a troubling saying or difficult word. You stop reading and turn to Google, a comment, or even your friend across the way for answers. Once your curiosity is satisfied, you pick up your Bible and pick up where you left off, only to derail again a few verses later. Do you see how this rhythm pulls you out of the flow of the text and makes it harder to follow its argument?
Make a habit of reading large portions of Scripture without stopping to look for things. Let the story overwhelm you. There will always be time later to go back and check the details.
3. An individual text need not carry the full weight of Christian theology.
The Bible is remarkable both for its unity and its diversity. It tells an amazing story of God’s plan to redeem his broken creation and make all things new in Christ, but it does so through the writings of dozens of people, in many different literary styles, over hundreds of years. Make no mistake: God in His sovereignty could have given us a simple list of timeless truths and commandments, but He did not. Instead, he gave us this multi-faceted collection of stories, letters and poetry from 2,000 years ago. It is in and through this collection of documents that we encounter Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.
What do we think of the diversity and complexity of the many parts of the Bible? First, don’t pretend it’s not diverse and complex. We Westerners like simplicity and logical organization, and we look for a solution in the face of complexity. Again, this is not a bad thing, but it can get us in trouble when reading and studying the scriptures. We must resist the urge to immediately iron out difficult passages and “over-harmonize” the diversity of Scripture.
Yes, we believe in unity and God’s gift of everything scripture, but that should not prevent us from hearing his distinct voices. The difference in nuance between Paul and Jacques is not a problem to be solved, but a blessing to be enjoyed. The fact that the four evangelists tell the story differently should not trouble us. Again, we are blessed with four unique (and true) interpretations of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. When we try to minimize these differences in the name of the unity of Scripture, we risk missing what the Lord is saying through them.
Don’t force every verse to tell the whole story of Christian theology. When we expect every text to say everything at once, we often twist it, taking it out of its literary context and ignoring the author’s intent. Let each portion of Scripture speak for itself. That a text on the inclusive love of God speaks of the inclusive love of God; that a text on the wrath of God speaks of the wrath of God. The image of his character comes from this mosaic of inspired perspectives. Unfortunately, we often try to replace that mosaic with a monochrome tile and then explain the parts of the story that don’t quite match. This is another reason not to stop reading whenever you come across something difficult; if you keep praying and mindful, you will be able to see a bigger picture as you go.
We must resist the urge to immediately iron out difficult passages and “over-harmonize” the diversity of Scripture.
“Don’t miss the forest for the trees,” the old saying goes, but that’s often what we Bible readers do. Will our Bible study often lead us to probing questions about individual words and phrases? Absolutely, but these questions must be answered in the context of the argument and the flow of the text. The better we understand the literary context, the more useful (and less error-prone) these word/phrase studies will be. By all means, go deep. But don’t let your enthusiasm for depth and precision throw you off course. Read in large chunks and don’t let your questions and frustrations keep you from grasping the beauty of God’s story revealed in His Word.